Following her celebrated, seven-year-run on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig has followed an uncommon acting path.
BY NOAH GITTELL
Following her celebrated, seven-year-run on “Saturday Night Live,” Kristen Wiig has followed an uncommon acting path. After the breakout success of “Bridesmaids”, she could have had her pick of comic blockbusters (including a proposed sequel), but instead she opted for personal, dramatic roles in independent films that failed to break through to the mainstream: “Girl Most Likely”, “Hateship Loveship”, and “The Skeleton Twins”. None were hits, but Wiig was consistently excellent, bringing a quiet, thoughtful energy to roles that would have been dull or clichéd without her.
Her latest, “Welcome to Me”, is the best vehicle yet for her particular talents. Wiig plays Alice Kleeg, a thirty-something single woman struggling with bipolar disorder. Life is hard, but Alice is managing: She lives off of government assistance in a dingy suburban apartment. She has a psychiatrist (Tim Robbins), a very understanding best friend (Linda Cardellini), and a gay ex-husband, all of whom help keep her functional. But her real passion is television, and her set is on 24 hours a day, and usually tuned to Oprah. So when she wins $80 million in the California lottery, she decides to fulfill her destiny and create her very own talk show. Although she’s far from an ideal host, money can solve almost any problem: she stumbles on a fledgling cable channel that agrees to take her money and put her on the air.
What is the show? One character calls it a “narrative infomercial,” but that’s not quite right, as she’s not selling anything. All she is doing is putting her own life on film, but with an introspective bent. Actors re-enact traumatic incidents from her life, while she hovers just off-camera to coach them or chide them when they make a poor acting choice. In one scene, she calls her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) and has a phone session, without telling him that he is on the air. When he finds out, he ends their professional relationship. Watching Alice try desperately to expose her inner life on camera, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry, so you might just find yourself doing both.
Particularly since Alice is based on a real person, it is a very thin tightrope for Wiig and sophomore director Shira Piven to walk. How do you make Alice funny without making fun of her? How do you take her disorder seriously without devolving into movie-of-the-week mawkishness? It would be easy, if ill-advised, to use Alice as a punchline or even fodder for some critique of television culture, but Wiig and Piven find just the right solution. They simply document the action and let us grapple with these questions. They align us with the perspectives of Alice’s viewers – the show itself was called “Welcome to Me”, after all – and let us decide whether it is okay to laugh.
It’s an immense acting challenge for Wiig, but she is uniquely suited to handle it. Her background in sketch comedy serves a dual purpose; she can handle the oddball skits her character writes for the show, but it also melds well with a character whose moods shift suddenly and without provocation. Wiig doesn’t achieve any emotional depth, nor does she aspire to. Instead, she underplays both the comedy and the drama, acting as a small, stabilizing force amidst the film’s outlandish events. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the film working as well with any other actor.
Alongside Wiig is a roster of stellar supporting talent, each of whom feels underused only because of how sharply they define their characters with little screen time. In addition to Tudyk, Cardellini, and Robbins, there are James Marsden and Wes Bentley, who play the bickering brothers who own the network and are charged with brining Alice’s vision to life. Bentley, who years ago played the intense teen in “American Beauty” is particularly winning here as a troubled romantic who falls for Alice. Finally, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Cusack pop in as the show’s producers who express skepticism – on behalf of the audience – about the ethics of being entertained by Alice.
It’s a wacky cast of characters, and on paper, it sounds like another indie comedy that would rather make you cringe than laugh, but, by taking their absurd story seriously, Wiig and Piven achieve something remarkable. “Welcome to Me” is funny, sad, and altogether unique.
My Rating: See it in the Theater
“Welcome to Me” (R) is now in theaters and available on VOD.